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Shortly after competing in a cross country meet in Northfield last week (pictured), it was announced that Winona would postpone all high school athletic competition for two weeks following a significant spike in confirmed cases of COVID-19 within Winona County. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

Grow as a gardener in the Master Gardener program

As fall approaches and colder weather makes its way to southern Minnesota, local gardeners don’t want you to forget about warmer weather and gardening.

The University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are accepting applications for the 2021 Master Gardeners volunteer program.

“The mission of the program is to use science-based horticulture knowledge and practices to deliver educational outreach and project-based efforts that inspire change and promote healthy people, healthy communities, and a healthy planet,” the UMN Extension Master Gardeners website.

Colorful flowers located in the community garden at the Riverland Community College in Owatonna. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

Last year, 2,408 certified Extension Master Gardeners volunteered their time throughout the state of Minnesota, totalling 140,000 volunteer hours and reaching over 195,000 Minnesota residents, according to a Steele County Master Gardeners news release.

The program is open to community members interested in gardening and sharing their love of gardening with others, as well as people wanting to learn more about horticulture and gardening. Topics that the master gardeners learn and teach about include horticulture skills, pollinators, plant biodiversity, nearby nature, clean water, climate change and local food. Not only do participants walk away with more knowledge, but they are also building fellowship with other passionate gardeners.

“As far as the benefits to me, it’s my therapy,” Lorrie Rugg, Steele County Master Gardeners Coordinator said. She finds this to be the case especially during the recent quarantine.

The process to become a master gardener involves time and commitment. After filling out an application and completing an interview, Master Gardener interns must complete the core course, which starts in January and ends in mid-May and costs about $320, according to the news release.

“Financial assistance is available on a case-by-case basis,” the release reads. Prospective gardeners are told to talk to their local program coordinator if this is an issue.

This self-paced course includes about 50 hours of basic horticulture education, which will be completely online in 2021. Online webinars with experts will be held weekly January through April. Students in the program will be expected to complete online quizzes for certification. The course is taught by Extension educators and faculty from the University of Minnesota.

“It’s online this year because of COVID,” Rugg said.

From there, master gardeners are expected to volunteer 50 hours on projects related to presenting horticultural education to the public. These volunteer hours will be reported online by the end of the year. Interns will also have the opportunity to work alongside and learn from veteran gardeners and program participants.

Vegetables growing at the community garden near the Riverland Community College Owatonna campus. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

Once completed with the internship, participants can continue as active members of the Master Gardeners volunteer program within their community. At least 25 hours of volunteering and an additional five education hours are required per year.

“The university has plenty of opportunities for education,” Rugg said. “We go to classes, we continually learn forever, I’ve been a master gardener for almost 20 years now, so I’ve learned so much through the program.”

Steele County master gardeners spend some of their time in the local community garden on the Riverland Owatonna Campus. There the group rents out 20 x 20-foot plots to local people who want to garden, while providing water and mulch for use. In the past they’ve hosted educational sessions there, but with COVID-19 they were unable to do so this year.

Areas of land are plotted out for gardeners to use. Water and mulch is also provided at the community garden near the campus of Riverland Community College in Owatonna. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

In addition, the group also maintains a pollinator garden located by the UMN Extension office. In July, the group received special permission to install a rain garden at the Steele County fairgrounds.

“In a normal year we do have a plant sale, we have educational opportunities for people around in our own counties, we speak to lunch groups, we speak to church groups, anybody that needs a speaker for anything about gardening we are right there to lend a helping hand,” Rugg said.

Vegetables and beautiful flowers are currently growing in this year’s community garden. (Ashley Rezachek/southernminn.com)

The typical face-to-face monthly Steele County Master Gardeners meetings have been halted all summer long per the university’s request. They now have their monthly meetings via Zoom.

“We are just having to work and do things in a totally different manner,” Rugg said.

She says she’s been answering a lot of questions over the phone and through email since the gardeners are not allowed to go out and meet people face-to-face in their yard to offer advice, diagnose garden issues and make suggestions.

“We’ve had to be very creative this summer in how we’ve done our work,” Rugg said. “It’s been an interesting summer.”

The Steele County Master Gardeners group has about 20 active members, according to Rugg. She adds that everybody has their own interest area, for example one gardener really likes vegetable gardening, another loves perennial plants and another has an interest in trees.

“So we all kind of have different areas of expertise within our group that we can call on,” Rugg said.

Rugg’s interest in gardening began when she started working at a garden center. Her passion for cultivation bloomed from there. With a friend, Rugg joined the Master Gardener program after moving to Owatonna.

“I don’t regret it,” Rugg said about joining the program decades ago. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Waseca County records state's highest COVID rate

COVID-19 case rates in three southern Minnesota counties have increased substantially, according to a Thursday report from the Minnesota Department of Health.

For the two-week reporting period of Aug. 16-29, Waseca County’s rate climbed to 50.51 per 10,000 residents — the highest in the state. It is the only county in the state with a rate greater than 50. The Minnesota Department of Health suggests that any county with a rate greater than 50 adopt a distance learning model for all students. Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton and New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva school districts started the year with distance learning for middle and high school students. Waseca Public Schools has a meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Waseca County recorded a 37.75 per 10,000 case rate in the previous two-week reporting period, which topped the state at that time.

Le Sueur County’s rate of 44.67 cases per 10,000 was the second highest in the state, a jump from 36.81 in the Aug. 9-22 report. Blue Earth County, home to Minnesota State University, Mankato, was fourth, with 44.33 cases per 10,000, a hike of more than 22 cases per 10,000 people in the two-week period.

Tri-City United schools, which has students in Rice and Le Sueur counties, moved to a hybrid model for all but kindergarten students even before the school year started.

The Department of Health recommends school districts in counties with rate of 30 to 50 people per 10,000 use a hybrid learning model for elementary schoolers and distance learner for older students.

Rice and Steele counties’ rates are far lower than their neighbors to the west. Steele’s rate was 16.63, a nearly 4-point increase from the prior report. Rice was at 18.40, a hike of slightly more than a point. Goodhue County’s rate was far lower, at 8.65 cases per 10,000 people. Its rate was unchanged from the prior two weeks.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases stands at 1,241 in Rice County and 488 in Steele. Eight Rice County residents have died from complications related to the virus, according the MDH, while Steele has recorded two deaths.

Waseca County recorded 12 new cases Thursday and two more deaths. The county has 358 lab confirmed cases and six total deaths. The two deaths recorded Thursday came at long-term care facilities. All but one of the deaths have come in congregate care living facilities.

Two of Rice County’s deaths were men incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault.

The state Department of Corrections began testing all inmates in late May. According to the department website, of the 565 positive/presumed positive inmates, all but seven have reportedly recovered.

As of Thursday, the Federal Corrections Institution in Waseca reported 64 cases of COVID-19 among inmates and four among staff members — an increase of 13 from the day before. The facility houses 614 female inmates and 490 inmates have been tested, according to the Bureau of Prisons website. The BOP reports 70 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

The BOP receives test results within 10-15 minutes, it said in a press release. It updates case numbers daily on its website at 3 p.m. The BOP said it has expanded testing on asymptomatic inmates as well.

“All inmates who are positive for COVID-19 or symptomatic are isolated and provided medical care in accordance with CDC guidelines,” the BOP said in a press release. “Symptomatic inmates whose condition rises to the level of acute medical care will be transferred to a hospital setting; either at a local hospital, or at an institution’s hospital care unit, if they have one.”

Walkers in what is billed as the ‘3 Legion Ruck’ carry two flags during a past walk to Morristown to bring attention to suicide prevention and mental health awareness among active military and veterans. This year, a special Ruck will be held in Faribault to commemorate Suicide Awareness Week. (File photo/southernminn.com)

2019 Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit

Minneapolis Federal Reserve president Neel Kashkari participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit at Union West on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Federal funding secured for final Hwy. 14 expansion

When state and federal legislators broke ground last fall for the Hwy. 14 expansion from Owatonna to Dodge Center, the was one clear message: we aren’t done yet.

On Thursday, celebrations erupted once more for those living along the Hwy. 14 corridor as it was officially announced that federal funding had been secured for the last remaining two-lane stretch of the road from Nicollet to New Ulm, often considered the state’s deadliest. The funding will come from a $22 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program.

“I am extremely proud to announce that because of this federal grant and state provided funds, the long overdue completion of the Highway 14 project – more than 50 years in the making – will finally become a reality,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Blue Earth) during an impromptu press conference in New Ulm to announce the funding. “Hwy. 14’s completion will go a long way toward enhancing safety, expanding commerce and improving transportation efficiency and quality of life for the hardworking men and women of southern Minnesota.”

In May, the state Legislature passed a measure to allow the Minnesota Department of Transportation to apply for a $36 million federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan for Hwy. 14 administered through the Rural Project Initiative and Build America Bureau of the United States Department of Transportation. State Sen. Nick Frentz (D-North Mankato) said in a statement that legislators are confident Minnesota will be approved for the TIFIA loan, which, between the BUILD grant and commitments from MnDOT and Nicollet County ($3.5 million), will fully fund the estimated $92.7 million project.

“The BUILD grant will reduce what the state of Minnesota must contribute, and that is a direct benefit to Minnesota taxpayers,” said Frentz. “The 12-mile stretch from Nicollet to New Ulm is shovel-ready and we could see the project finished by the end of 2022, which is a huge benefit for all southern Minnesota.”

“This was a win-win solution that I’m proud to be a part of,” he said.

The expansion of Hwy. 14 has been a personal topic for many in thee region. In 2020 alone, there have been two fatal crashes on the 12-mile two-lane stretch. State Rep. Jeff Brand (D-St. Peter) said Thursday that the federal grant is both welcome and much-needed for his district which includes the dangerous stretch of road.

“For too long our community has been home to one of the deadliest highways in the state,” Brand said. “Today’s news is a victory for the tireless advocates and a testament to the determination of the folks at the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s District 7, who refused to let this opportunity pass us by.”

Among those advocates is Owatonna City Councilmember Kevin Raney, who also serves as the current president of the Hwy. 14 Partnership. When funding was first secured for the expansion project from Owatonna to Dodge Center in 2018, Raney was quick to assert that his advocacy would not end until the highway is a continuous four-lane stretch from New Ulm to Rochester.

“The federal BUILD grant announced [Thursday] is fantastic news for southern Minnesota. This grant will help ensure that Hwy. 14 expansion between Nicollet to New Ulm can proceed as quickly as possible,” Raney said in a statement Thursday. “We have waited too long and lost too many neighbors on Hwy. 14 over the years, but the progress we’ve seen this year is a source of hope. Completion of this project will save lives and help our local economies emerge from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The collaboration that has taken place across multiple levels of government to keep this project moving despite the COVID-19 pandemic is living proof that when we pull together, Minnesotans can tackle big problems,” he said.